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Prescription Depressant Abuse & Addiction | Types, Withdrawal, & Treatment Options

Published on October 12, 2020
bottle of spilled depressant pills

Prescription depressants help people who struggle with issues like anxiety and insomnia. When taken with a doctor’s guidance, they can play a role in improving your quality of life. 

But abusing prescription depressants is dangerous. Most of them are intended for short-term use and can cause health problems if you stay on them for too long. Prescription depressant abuse can lead to physical dependence, addiction, and overdose.

Prescription Depressant Abuse

If you take prescription depressants outside of prescription guidelines, you’re abusing them. Abuse could mean taking them at a higher dose, more often, or for longer than prescribed. It could also mean using them without a prescription. 

Depressants come in pill, capsule, or liquid form. They are most commonly abused by swallowing, as they’re intended. But some people inject benzodiazepines or crush sleeping pills into powder and snort them. 

These alternative methods of abuse come with unique risks, as does the type of drug you abuse.

Benzodiazepine Abuse

Benzodiazepines (“benzos”) are usually prescribed to treat anxiety and insomnia. They work by increasing the effectiveness of GABA, a chemical that regulates brain activity so you can stay calm.

As depressants, benzodiazepines slow down central nervous system functions like breathing and heart rate. Rapid breathing and heart rate are stress responses that contribute to and are caused by anxiety. 

Benzodiazepines make it easier for you to relax and avoid the anxious feeling that keeps you awake and interferes with daily living. Some people use them to self-medicate, while others simply enjoy the stress-relieving effects. 

Commonly prescribed benzodiazepines are:

  • alprazolam (Xanax)
  • lorazepam (Ativan)
  • diazepam (Valium)
  • triazolam (Halcion)
  • clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • chlordiazepoxide (Librium)

Research has found that benzodiazepines aren’t very effective for long-term use. They can cause worsened anxiety and insomnia because they make your brain less efficient at coping on its own. 

Prolonged benzodiazepine use and abuse are linked to cognitive impairment. You may experience memory problems, loss of muscle coordination, and slow reaction time. These issues might not improve even if you stop taking benzodiazepines. 

Learn more about Benzodiazepine Abuse & Addiction

Sleeping Pill Abuse

Sleeping pills are sedative-hypnotic drugs that help you fall asleep and stay asleep at night. Also called “z-drugs,” sleeping pills are non-benzodiazepines, though they’re similar in chemical structure and target the same areas of the brain.

Well-known sleeping pills include:

  • zolpidem (Ambien)
  • eszopiclone (Lunesta)
  • zaleplon (Sonata)

Prescription sleeping pills are usually prescribed for short-term use, such as 10 days. You take them to help you get on a healthier sleep schedule, then you shouldn’t need them anymore.

Some people increase their dosage to make up for tolerance to sleeping pills, but this often causes more sleep issues in the long-run. Others abuse sleeping pills by taking them and purposefully staying awake to experience a pleasant relaxing sensation. 

If you don’t have seven to eight hours to sleep after taking a sleeping pill, you could endanger yourself and others. You may not be alert or even aware of what you’re doing.

Daytime drowsiness and bizarre sleep behavior are side effects of sleeping pills that are more likely to happen when these drugs are abused. Some people have cooked meals, driven vehicles, and had sex after taking sleeping pills and don’t remember their actions later. 

Learn more about Sleeping Pill Abuse & Addiction

Barbiturate Abuse

Barbiturates are sedative drugs used to treat seizures and to relax people before surgery. They were once used for anxiety and insomnia as well, but aren’t widely prescribed these days because they have an even higher abuse potential than benzodiazepines.

Common barbiturates are:

  • pentobarbital (Nembutal)
  • phenobarbital (Luminal)
  • secobarbital (Seconal)
  • amobarbital (Amytal)

Like benzodiazepines and sleeping pills, barbiturates slow down the central nervous system. They decrease brain activity, which can prevent seizures at the right dose.

Barbiturates are especially dangerous because the difference between the “right dose” and a lethal dose is small. They are also associated with depressive symptoms, cognitive impairment, and withdrawal seizures.

Learn more about Barbiturate Abuse & Addiction

Can You Overdose On Prescription Depressants?

It’s possible to overdose on prescription depressants if you: 

  • take a high enough dose
  • take them too often
  • mix them with other substances, including alcohol

A depressant overdose can slow down your breathing to dangerous levels. The lack of oxygen to your brain can cause permanent damage and may result in a coma or death. 

Central nervous system depressants such as opioids and alcohol are very dangerous to use with prescription depressants, as they compound the effects of respiratory depression. The risk of a fatal overdose is highest when multiple depressant drugs are used together.

Prescription Depressant Withdrawal & Dependence

With any type of prescription depressant, your body builds a tolerance over time, which is why they’re mostly intended for short-term use. As you become tolerant, you need a higher dose to have a similar effect. 

Higher doses can cause your body to develop a dependence on the drug, needing it to function normally. Physical dependence raises the chance that you’ll become addicted. 

If you abuse depressants then try to stop taking them, you’ll likely have uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that may cause you to resume misuse.

Withdrawal symptoms often include rebound anxiety or insomnia. The symptoms you treat with a prescription depressant may come back even stronger when you stop. 

In most cases, your doctor will create a tapering schedule to help you slowly wean off of the drug and avoid or reduce withdrawal symptoms. 

Prescription Depressant Addiction

When you abuse prescription depressants, your brain stops working to relieve stress naturally and depends on the drugs instead. This reinforces drug-taking behavior, making you crave depressants so it’s very difficult to stop using them.

Signs of prescription depressant addiction may be:

  • loss of control over drug use, even if you want to cut back
  • taking depressants without a prescription
  • prescriptions from multiple doctors (doctor shopping)
  • spending excessive money on drugs
  • spending most of your time seeking or taking drugs
  • a constant state of sedation
  • health problems from depressants

Addiction is a serious disease that can control your life. It often gets in the way of relationships, job productivity, and interest in things you used to love. It may be hard to admit that you have a problem with prescription depressants, but asking for help is the first step.

Prescription Depressant Addiction Treatment Options

Treatment for prescription depressant addiction may begin with a medically assisted detox program. Detox gets the drugs out of your body so you can focus on healing from addiction.

Prescription depressants can cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, such as seizures, making the withdrawal process dangerous to undergo on your own. Medical detox takes place in a safe, inpatient setting where professionals monitor your vital signs and ease discomfort.

After detox, you can safely enter an outpatient or residential/inpatient rehab program.

The most effective treatment programs for prescription depressant addiction are tailored to your needs and combine several therapies to heal the mind and body. Treatment may include behavioral therapy, exercise, and stress management techniques to prevent relapse.

To discover if our prescription depressant rehab programs at Ark Behavioral Health are a good fit for you, reach out to a treatment specialist today.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

American Family Physician - Risks Associated with Long-Term Benzodiazepine Use
Epilepsy Foundation - Barbiturates
Harvard Health Publishing - Benzodiazepines (and the alternatives)
National Institute on Drug Abuse - Central Nervous System Depressants

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